Courage is good business

I can only imagine what it must feel like to see your entire business go up in flames. The unbearable pain. Maybe even like losing a loved one. To see 40 years’ sweat, planning and fulfillment disappear overnight. Just like that. In 1934 that’s exactly what happened to Danish horse carriage manufacturer Niels Eilersen. 

In one night the factory containing his life’s work – the business that he had created, developed, filled with employees, adapted to market changes and brought safely through a World War – burnt to the ground. But Niels Eilersen had the courage to think big. Today thousands of loyal customers still flock to Eilersen for furniture renowned for its craft and quality. How did Eilersen do it? Last month I drove 250 km down to Denmark to find out, and to try their unique sofas.

Think how many hours, days, weeks even, you spend on your sofa. I actually lost track of the number of people over the years who told me how comfortable mine is. To find another one like that wasn’t going to be easy. I didn’t just want it to be great looking. It had to be extremely comfortable too. It had a lot to live up to! So last month my daughter Märta and I drove across Denmark, to visit 120-year old Danish company Eilersen, today owned by a fourth generation of master craftsmen. Yes – fourth generation.

It’s not every business that gets its customers to drive 250km to try their products. This journey itself shows the kind of commitment customers feel when they know a company has something special. Just as we are drawn towards, and follow, individuals who we sense have deep integrity – so we are drawn towards companies with the same qualities: If your customers sense the integrity, commitment and values in your business, they will come to you, turning your brand into a magnet.

Two journeys: One brand

Certainly for me, my journey, and my meeting with Eilersen representative Thomas Finch Rasmussen were an experience to remember, wildly different to just purchasing an item online or from a local designer store. Of course, I got to touch, feel and sit on all their sofas, and to ask all the questions I had. But what really made the difference was the respect I felt for the journey the company had made, the courage, vision and values they had stayed true to through 120 years of turbulent, dizzying history: Industrialization, the rise of motor vehicles, two World Wars, digital technology, globalization, the worldwide web and so much more. Driving and owning a business myself I can well imagine the endless, tense meetings and discussions the leaders of the company must have steered through, the relentless barrage of decisions needing to be taken – season in, season out. I find myself humbled and inspired by the integrity of their journey, the scale of their achievement. They stayed true to their dream and continued to grow – on their terms. In their way.

Courage in the face of change

So how did it all start? Eilersen was founded in 1895 by Niels Eilersen, a master craftsman and coachbuilder. A driven innovator, Niels was the first carpenter in Denmark to perfect the technique of using steam to bend wood. Manufacturing horse carriages in the 1890s, when motor cars came along he found his company’s core offering suddenly redundant: Almost overnight. It must have been a frightening situation. And one familiar to many businesses today, in our world of accelerated technology and perpetual upgrades. But Niels Eilersen was convinced that the essence of the Eilersen company – the quality of its craftsmanship – was bigger than whatever the market of the moment happened to be demanding. Seeing the advent of the motor car as an opportunity, he moved the company over to the manufacture of handmade bodies for cars and buses. This courageous commitment to craft and quality made its way down through the decades, treasured and preserved by generation after generation, to today’s co-owner: Niels J. Eilersen, the fourth generation Eilersen to run the business. He is proud of his great grandfather’s courageous legacy, seeing how it has enabled Eilersen to not just survive change, but use it as a catalyst for growth – for over 100 years.

Courage, quality and an iron will

“Without doubt our founder was a great craftsman,” Niels J. Eilersen says. “He had a deep feeling for, and understanding of, the materials. He understood the quality you can put into products through craftsmanship – and he had an iron will. This combination meant that for him there was actually no risk in change, in offering new products to a new world. But of course in order to do this on a larger scale he must have been a good leader – urging his employees to participate, to identify themselves with the work and the products. It becomes a personal issue.”

In 1934 change, and another serious decision, faced the company. Decisions are difficult for all of us. For businesses, affecting the destinies of so many and the accumulated creativity and wealth of generations, decisions often produce fear, anxiety and caution. Once again Niels Eilersen’s vision and values gave him courage. Embracing his dream of the company’s larger future, and having already seen the broader growth possible from high-quality craftsmanship, he decided to turn Eilersen’s entire production process over to high-quality upholstered furniture. The decision paid off. Today Eilersen is celebrated throughout Northern Europe for the durability, design and craft of its furniture.

Globalization: Today’s’ big challenge

For today’s generation of Eilersen leaders, globalization is a big challenge, and probably raises many emotions and questions. Again, by staying true to its core values, its heritage, and its legacy of courage the leaders of the company seem to not just have learned from globalization but actually made sure the company grows from it.

Since 2000 the company has produced much of its furniture in Tianjin, China. Building on its long-term commitment to quality, its operations in China too are long-term. Eilersen’s core belief in craft and quality extends to labor relations, environmental impact and its supply chain. And its core belief in craftsmanship has proved universal: “The expectations on a well-trained carpenter are the same wherever you are in the world – the vision, the mission, the ingredients and the instructions are the same, only the language is different,” says Niels Eilersen. ”Eilersen is Eilersen. We do it the Eilersen way, or not at all. Challenges vary depending on the country – but the result is always the same.”

Courage drives internal motivation

Closer to home, the story and values of the company play a strong, motivating role for the company’s workforce. “When we recruit someone they have to learn the craftsmanship, or, if they’re not working directly in production, at least the passion behind it. Learning the craft takes some time. It’s the result of a lot of training and a lot of practice,” Niels J. Eilersen says. “I believe Eilersen employees are proud of their story and heritage. Everybody has that special feeling they’re part of the real thing. There are no shortcuts with our products. We all have the same passion and will to make every Eilersen product in the best possible way, to offer the best possible quality and durability to our customers. Each of the four generations has added their own distinctive values – but all have been built on our commitment to quality craft.”

And because the company’s core belief has been handed down from generation to generation, Eilersen’s commitment to it has remained. Each of the four generations has added their own distinctive values and priorities, but all have stuck to the core belief of quality craft. “As family owners we have our heart and soul in the company,” says Niels J. Eilersen. “As a family company we can move fast if necessary. And extremely slowly when necessary. Our customers recognize this too. We build long term relationships, based on trust in our integrity and partnership.”

Courage: Solid value in a changing world

In a technological and business climate as fast and stressful as today’s, when upgrade and obsolescence is more rapid than ever before, it is easy to let our fears make us focus on tactical short-term goals, making us neglect the courageous, enduring values that drove our business in the first place. Eilersen is a solid example of the success and agility businesses and organizations can achieve when courageous leaders embrace timeless core values, and stick to them. It shows that courage is a business legacy, providing growth and a ‘can-do’ attitude from generation to generation. It requires constant self-awareness, an iron will, patience and understanding. But when a company runs off courage, not fear, it flourishes over the long haul no matter how turbulent the market.

“We have a long focus and long vision,” says Eilersen. “In another 120 years I’m positive we will still be offering quality crafted products to the world.”

How many companies could say the same?

So, how can leaders become more courageous, creating businesses that are agile, resourceful and successful in changing times?

Visions and values are not ‘soft’ business components

A driving vision is not a ‘soft’ business value. It is a hard necessity. It is not a red ribbon wrapped around your business offering. It is the very backbone of that offering. Products come, products go. Markets rise, markets fall. Deep belief built on strong ethical values, doesn’t. It remains. It endures. Stray from it too far, dilute it too much, neglect it for seemingly essential short-term goals, and your company risks coming adrift. Remind yourself of your company’s vision. Have the courage to stick to it. Keep thinking big. You may encounter ridicule, dismissal, people who just don’t understand. But a deep vision is what will get you through. Hold it. Stay true to it. Recreate it. Re-embrace it. It’s yours. Have the courage to own it.

Managers deliver plans, leaders deliver a vision

Remember: Managers and leaders are two different things. A successful company needs both. We are appointed to be a manager. But we become a leader. We have to grow our leadership, nurture it, develop it. And, crucially, leadership is entrusted to us by others. You become a leader when others choose to follow you – not out of fear. Not out of coercion. But out of free, willing consent, which can be withdrawn at any time. In my experience people choose to follow leaders who inspire, and include, not inform and exclude. And it is the deep, committed vision, and the confidence and strength to stay true to it over the long haul, that inspires us most.

During times of change link short-term goals to your deeper vision

People who believe that what they are working for stands for something, that it means something, remain motivated and committed. A strong, deep vision inspires people working inside a company just as much as its short-term goals, especially during times of change. During change it is vital to explain and clarify to people the link between expedient short-term measures and the deeper, enduring goal they are headed towards. Inspire and include, even when it feels scary.

Be courageous: Ask yourself what is it you’re really selling?

What is it your customers really want from you? What is it they really value when they buy something from you? Keep the relevance, urgency and vitality of this question at the centre of your mind and operations – at all times. Businesses and organizations that truly understand the deep meaning of their offerings often achieve stronger, more loyal relationships with their clients and customers.

To find out more about Eilersen, visite their homepage at http://www.eilersen.eu